The Office of Financial Empowerment recognizes tax time as a key moment to establish asset-building behaviors centered on financial savings for low-income New Yorkers, as tax refunds are often the largest lump-sum payment these households receive all year.

In Reimagining Tax Time Services, the first project from Designing for Financial Empowerment, the partners explored free tax preparation services, as well as tax credits such as the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). EITC is a vital source of financial relief and can provide a family of three up to $8,000 or individuals an average of $1,600. However, one in five eligible New Yorkers does not take advantage of the EITC, while over three-fourths of those who do claim EITC benefits use paid tax preparers—at an average cost of $250—instead of taking advantage of the free services offered at public Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) sites.

Department of Consumer Affairs Commissioner Julie Menin has identified the EITC as a crucial tool for combatting the growing financial divide in New York City. Commissioner Menin set an ambitious goal of 150,000 new tax returns filed via VITA sites for 2015.  As the city continues to grow the number of VITA filers, new public services may be designed to and prototyped to better meet the needs of low-income New Yorkers.

With this goal in mind, Reimagining Tax Time Services asks:

How might we encourage more low-income New Yorkers to use existing free tax services?

How might we enhance and re-imagine those service to better serve their constituency? 

n order to respond to these questions, Designing for Financial Empowerment has brought together  an interdisciplinary team of designers, civil servants, policy experts, and community advocates, with the aim to learn about the challenges that tax filers face and to explore potential solutions. In Reimagining Tax Time Services, the interdisciplinary team collaborated with Food Bank for New York City to re-imagine the way free tax preparation services are delivered in the city, taking into consideration some of the underlying systemic factors, as well as the practical limitations of existing services.